Category Archives: History

Welcome To March

Daffodil.Photo by Bertil Videt, 2005
Daffodil.Photo by Bertil Videt, 2005

March comes from Latin Martius, the first month of the early Roman calendar. It is named for Mars, the Roman god of war and agriculture. And Romans believed he was the ancestor of Romulus and Remus. March would remain the first month of the new year for many until the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582 although Great Britain did not change till 1752. Greece was the last European country to switch over in 1923.

March has two birthstones, aquamarine and bloodstone. The birth flower is the daffodil.

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Book Review: The Children’s Blizzard

“A cold wave is indicated for Dakota and Nebraska tonight and tomorrow; the snow will drift heavily today and tomorrow in Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Wisconsin.”

Childrens BlizzardIn January 1888 a terrible blizzard caught many by surprise in Dakota and Nebraska leaving many dead in its wake–and many of the dead were children. The blizzard became known as the Schoolhouse Blizzard, Schoolchildren’s Blizzard or simply The Children’s Blizzard. David Laskin takes us back to recount what happened on 12 January 1888 and why people were so unprepared. He looks at the people who emigrated from Europe and Russia to settle in the plains, at the Weather Bureau which at the time was part of the Army Signal Corp, and why the storm itself was so particularly nasty. The event is still remembered today though sadly knowledge of this event seems to have slipped from being taught today in many U.S. history classes.

Laskin paints a portrait of the various people that came to live in the area to start a new life. Perhaps that is not a new story but consider they gave up everything to do so. Some came because land was too limited for their children to make a living or government edicts made it impossible either to stay or make a living. The journey to America was not easy for any of them but those who bonded together in common faith had a support group on the journey. Children were lost on the journey and it was not comfortable at all. First having to suffer through unpleasant conditions on ships and then finding out the rail car they reserved was nothing more than a glorified cattle car with hardly any amenities. When they arrived they found a land that stretched flat in all directions with the occasional clump of trees for shade. They began with the sod house and started farming the land.

They quickly learned though this was no Eden but often an unforgiving area. Prairie fires spread quickly through the tall grass. Locusts and grasshoppers would descend on their crops eating their hard earned work. And the winters were nothing like they experienced at home. They were not only exceptionally cold but dropped huge amounts of snow sometimes trapping them inside their homes for days. Early settlers learned how to make ersatz coffee and other foods while they waited out the storms. The cold and heavy snow winters were no fluke. They were the norm as they learned. Yet they persevered despite the many problems and raised families.

The other part of the story is the Weather Bureau and by extension the weather itself. The Weather Bureau was run by the Army Signal Corps. While there were dedicated personnel doing their jobs correctly, many were not. There was lots of graft and corruption inside it despite leadership that tried to correct the problems. The Weather Bureau was not considered reliable but remained largely intact due to lethargy on the part of Congress to reform it and those that supported keeping it in the Army Signal Corps. The Weather Bureau relied on weather readings from stations and reports by others to make its forecasts. Telegraph was the fastest means of the day to send messages but the offices were not manned 24 hours a day, not unlike the wireless operators at sea before Titanic disaster. The knowledge of weather systems was not as developed as it is today so they did not understand the severity of the weather that was heading towards them on that fateful day. But the lack of manning weather offices 24-7 meant urgent notices of changes were not read right away causing forecasts to be way off. Which is what happened here.

The day of the storm was unusually warm for January and many were out doing things. Farmers were outside tending their crops and livestock. Children were at school and people went about their daily business. They had no clue something was wrong until the storm slammed down on them all at once. First it got cold, very cold. The temperature dropped rapidly well below freezing (-40 in some places) and then was followed by howling 80 mile hour winds and blowing snow. The snow had been tossed around so much in the atmosphere that it was tiny but in a storm of this size millions of them became like a sandstorm in winter. You literally could not see your hands in front of your face. People were later found near their homes frozen inches from safety. Many kids in one room schools had to be sent home since there was not enough heat or the building suffered damage in the storm. Those that made it to a warm place or stayed in the schoolhouse that had warmth survived. Children that got separated or tried to walk home alone perished. Animals perished too often right were they stood. For many families, it was heart wrenching losing not just one but perhaps two or three children. Some bodies were not found till the spring thaw.

The aftermath of the storm did not immediately cause change at the Weather Bureau. Astonishingly there was not much public outcry against the Weather Bureau. General Greeley tried to play down how bad the storm was as typical press exaggeration, though later he changed his mind on that point. In fact the only person that was demoted was 1st Lieutenant Thomas Woodruff who was in charge of the Saint Paul office. And that was due to enemies he made in Saint Paul who were determined to drive him out and the fact his indications (forecasts) were considered lowest in the service. But two months later another blizzard would hit, this time in the American northeast hitting the major cities and completely shutting down New York. Like what happened two months prior, the forecast was totally inaccurate. In New York City all commerce and traffic came to halt. Elevated trains were stopped in their tracks. No vehicles could move in the streets. Power lines went down as did the telegraph isolating New York and other cities (including Washington D.C.) and everyone stayed inside until the storm had passed. 400 hundred people (estimated) died from being stranded when this storm struck quickly and hard. This time the reaction was loud from the New York press and quickly Greeley ordered weather stations to be manned 24-7 so they could update when forecasts changed. Most telegraph and telephone lines were moved underground as well. It also finally resulted in moving the Weather Bureau away from the Army Signal Corps into the Agriculture Department in 1890 (it would later move to Commerce under President Franklin Roosevelt and much later into National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration then renamed National Weather Service in 1970).

Life continued for many where the Children’s Blizzard occurred but over time, due to economic changes and the era of family farms dwindling, many of the farms disappeared. Today many areas where they once settled are empty returning slowly back to what it was when those settlers arrived. Perhaps that is the natural tide of history for archaeology has shown peoples have moved when the climate or trade routes changed. It is happening today but people are not recognizing quite that way. Just look at the once powerful industrial cities that fueled an industry that now are in decline. Laskin’s book is a fascinating look at an event in American history that is being sadly passed over these days in classrooms. And that forgetfulness is costly when the same type of cold storm comes down from the north causing severe damage, power outages, and sadly deaths.

Laskin, David The Children’s Blizzard, New York: HarperCollins, 2004
The book is available at Amazon in hardcopy, paperback and Kindle versions. Check your local library as well.

Today is Labor Day

Labor DayLabor Day is a national holiday in the United States and became a federal holiday in 1894. The holiday was created to celebrate the “the strength and spirit de corps of the trade and labor organizations.” Usually a parade occurs followed by a get together where people celebrate workers and their families. Aside from that, it is also marks the end of summer with schools now open and summer vacations at an end. Of course retail businesses like to use the day as an important sale day. For many though it is a nice long weekend.

Remembering The Victims of PS General Slocum

PS General Slocum
Illustration by Samuel Ward Stanton of the excursion steamboat General Slocum (Wikipedia)

Though not well known, 109 years ago today the PS General Slocum caught fire and sank in the New York East River. At the time she on a chartered run carrying members of St. Matthews Evangelical Lutheran Church to a church picnic. The Slocum had over 1,400 passengers, many of them women and children.

It is believed the fire started in the Lamp Room, possibly by a discarded cigarette. Fueled by oily straw, rags, and lamp oil, the fire began to spread. By 10:00 a.m. the fire was noticed and Captain Van Schaick was notified of it. Rather then running the ship aground or stop at a landing, he continued on course. This likely fanned the flames and with flammable paint spread the fire out of control.

Worse though was that the safety equipment–fire hoses and life jackets– and been left to rot. The fire hoses came apart, the life jackets were in poor condition and some filled with weights, and the lifeboats were tied up making them inaccessible. Also the crew had never had a fire drill so they did not know what to do. People had to jump into the water. Most could not swim and were weighed down by woolen clothing. Worse the life preservers helped children sink rather than float (some of them simply came apart when touched). By the time the General Slocum sank in shallow water at North Brother Island, an estimated 1,021 had burned to death or drowned. Only 321 survived and five crew members died. Captain Van Schaick survived. There were many stories of heroism both on ship and from people ashore trying to help people by forming human chains to pull them out of the water.

Eight were indicted by a Federal grand jury but only Captain Van Schaick was convicted and served time for criminal negligence (though pardoned by President Taft in 1912). Despite evidence of fraudulent inspection records, the Knickerbocker Steamship Company paid a small fine. The incident led to state and federal regulations improving emergency equipment aboard ships.

General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City
General Slocum Memorial Tompkins Square Park, Manhattan, New York City

There are two memorials to the victims of the General Slocum. One is at Lutheran All Faiths Cemetery in Queens, New York where many of the unidentified victims are buried. It is also where the annual memorial service is held. The other is a memorial marble fountain erected in 1906 at Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan.


1. General Slocum Victims Remembered 109 Years(14 June 2013, New York Daily News)

2. PS General Slocum (Wikipedia)

3. The General Slocum : The horror of fire at sea (Jim Kalafus, Encylopedia Titanica)


Thanksgiving Proclamation

Thanksgiving Proclamation

Thanksgiving was not an official national holiday until 1863. A letter from a 74-year magazine editor, Sarah Josepha Hale, inspired President Abraham Lincoln to create a national holiday. She wrote in 1863 that we needed to have a national day of Thanksgiving so that everyone could celebrate it on the same day. At the time Thanksgiving was celebrated by the various states but not on the same date. She wanted President Lincoln to make it a national day so it would become a permanent part of “American custom and institution.”

According to Abraham Lincoln Online , other presidents had ignored such requests. Lincoln decided to act on her request and directed a proclamation be drawn up. On 3 October 1863, President Lincoln’s proclamation that establishes Thanksgiving as a national day was issued. It sets aside the last Thursday of November as a “day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” Secretary of State William Seward actually drafted the proclamation which Lincoln signed. Thanksgiving became a national holiday and was celebrated on that date until 1939. President Roosevelt in 1939, 1940 and1941 changed it to the third Thursday (to extend the Christmas season) causing considerable controversy. A joint resolution of Congress in 1941 resolved it by decreeing Thanksgiving would fall on the fourth Thursday of November.

Lincoln’s proclamation was written during the American Civil War, a terrible time in U.S. history. Today we forget why this day was made a national holiday. It was to thank God for the blessings of liberty but also to ask his help. In our politically correct times, this proclamation is not always read in full or edited. So here is the original proclamation. Read it and understand why Lincoln thought a national day of Thanksgiving was needed for the United States of America.

Proclamation Establishing Thanksgiving Day
October 3, 1863

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies.  To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.  In the midst of a civil war of unequalled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship; the axe had enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore.  Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years, with large increase of freedom.

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things.  They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.   And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to his tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.
Done at the city of Washington, this third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the independence of the United States the eighty-eighth.
A. Lincoln